Cruciform Charity

One of the most striking features of David Hart’s account of the history of Christianity in his Atheist Delusions is the central place afforded to the practices of charity. Hart notes that such practices constituted a unique feature of the gospel that radically distinguished the early church from its cultural surroundings. Not only was ancient pagan religion seemingly incapable of sustaining charity and mercy as a meaningful praxis of devotion, but it lacked the theological foundations necessary to make service to “the least of these” intelligible. In Hart’s view, it was the shocking, cruciform rupture of the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ — God manifested to humanity and the human beheld for the first time in the glory of the Son — that enabled us to truly grasp the inherent and universal dignity of human personhood. He writes,

“[. . .] the entire idea of human nature has been thoroughly suffused with the light of Easter, ‘contaminated’ by the Christian inversion of social order; our nature is [. . .] first and foremost our community in the humanity of Christ, who by descending into the most abject conditions, even dying the death of a criminal, only to be raised up as Lord of history, in the glory of God, has become forever the face of the faceless, the persona by which each of us has been raised to the dignity of a ‘co-heir of the Kingdom'” (p. 180).

With such theological discussions of incarnation, cross and resurrection, redemption, participation, personhood, deification tightly in the background, Hart gives some helpful historical catalogues illustrating the various ways in which this cruciform charity took shape in the life of early Christians. To quote at length,

“There was, after all, a long tradition of Christian monastic hospitals for the destitute and dying going back to the days of Constantine and stretching from the Syrian and Byzantine East to the Western fringes of Christendom, a tradition that had no real precedent in pagan society (unless one counts, say the valetudinaria used by the military to restore soldiers to fighting form). St. Ephraim the Syrian (A.D.C. 306-373), when the city of Edessa was ravaged by plague, established hospitals open to all who were afflicted. St. Basil the Great (A.D.C 329-379) founded a hospital in Cappadocia with a ward set aside for the care of lepers, whom he did not distain to nurse with his own hands. St. Benedict of Nursia (A.D.C. 480-537) opened a free infirmary at Monte Cassino and made care of the sick a paramount duty of his monks. In Rome, the Christian noblewoman and scholar St. Fabiola (d. A.D.C. 399) established the first public hospital in Western Europe and — despite her wealth and position — often ventured out into the streets personally to seek out those who needed care. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), while patriarch of Constantinople, used his influence to fund several such institutions in the city; and in the diakoniai of Constantinople, for centuries, many rich members of the laity labored to care for the poor and ill, bathing the sick, ministering to their needs, assisting them with alms. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines alone were responsible for more than two thousand hospitals in Western Europe. The twelfth century was particularly remarkable in this regard, especially wherever the Knights of St. John — the Hospitallers — were active. At Montpellier in 1145, for example, the great Hospital of the Holy Spirit was founded, soon becoming a center of medical training and, in 1221, of Montpellier’s faculty of medicine. And, in addition to medical care, these hospitals provided food for the hungry, cared for widows and orphans, and distributed alms to all who came in need” (p. 30).

“Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations” (p. 164).

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About Ben Kautzer

I am currently dwelling in the intangible space of the between. Having finished my MA in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham, I decided to take a bit of a break, return to California, and start applying for PhD programs. That process is finally drawing to a close. This Fall I will be commencing my doctoral research in political theology at either the University of Nottingham, Durham, or Bristol. As of yet, that future still remains (uncomfortably) uncertain. My recent academic pursuits tend to focus on political theology (ecclesiology, ethics, politics, liturgy), biblical theology (scriptural narrative, hermeneutics, philosophy of memory and historical method), and Continental Philosophy (especially phenomenology). View all posts by Ben Kautzer

16 responses to “Cruciform Charity

  • Anthony Paul Smith

    If one could show you that paganism, at least in a minoritarian way (meaning not as witnessed to in the politics of the Roman Empire), did have this element of charity in its thought and practice, what would that do to your thesis?

  • Ben Kautzer

    In the abstract, my first reaction would be to say either “I don’t know” or “probably nothing.” The point that Hart is making here (and I should add here that this is HIS thesis not mine — I’ve yet to do enough of the historical research of the primary sources to make these claims with the same confidence he does) is not so much that pagans were never charitable nor that there was no trace of merciful practice towards to poor and dejected; nor is he suggesting that Christians acted completely benevolently without instance of violence and cruelty of their own. The point he’s making is that (1) with Christianity came and unprecedented paradigm shift with regard to the value of the human; (2) that this value was no longer not stratified according to some Aristotelian classism or what have you, but in light of particular content given to the imago dei in the incarnation of Christ; (3) that a new emphasis was placed on the particular worth of the weak, sick, dejected, homeless, infant left to exposure, and so forth that was strongly tied to the message of the gospel (especially Matthew 25.31-46, Luke 10.25-37, James 1.27); (4) and that while paganism could embody charity in particular instances it lacked the theological framework to raise it to the pinnacle of the virtues — in fact, as THE virtue that the qualifies and orders all others.

    To quote Hart’s position directly,

    “Pagan cult was never more tolerant than in its tolerance — without any qualms of conscience — of poverty, disease, starvation, and homelessness; of gladiatorial spectacle, crucifixion, the exposure of unwanted infants, or the public slaughter of war captives or criminals on festive occasions; of, indeed, almost every imaginable form of tyranny, injustice, depravity, or cruelty. The indigenous sects of the Roman world simply made no connection between religious piety and anything resembling a developed social morality. At their best, their benignity might extend as far as providing hostelry for pilgrims or sharing sacrificial meats with their devotees; as a rule, however, even these meager services were rare and occasional in nature, and never amounted to anything like a religious obligation to care for the suffering, feed the hungry, or visit prisoners. Nor did the authority of the sacred, in pagan society, serve in any way to mitigate the brutality of the larger society — quite the contrary, really — and it would be difficult to exaggerate that brutality” (pp. 121-122).

    Again, I’ll admit that Hart’s absolutist language here is probably historically unhelpful. I would argue that the point is not to suggest that ancient paganism was a pure evil devoid of any sense of kindness, beauty, justice, or mercy. However, the difference between the moral matrix of ancient paganism and early Christianity was substantial (to say the very least). In language far more polemical than I would employ, Hart notes that:

    “The old and the new faiths represented two essentially incompatible visions of sacred order and of the human good. They could not coexist indefinitely, and only a moral imbecile could unreservedly regret which of the two it was that survived. The old gods did not — and by their nature could not — inspire the building of hospitals and almshouses, or make feeding the hungry and clothing the naked a path of spiritual enlightenment, or foster and coherent concept of the dignity intrinsic to every human soul; they could never have taught their human charges to think of charity as the highest of virtues or as the way of union with the divine” (p. 124).

    Of course, all of that is somewhat of a shot in the dark response to an instance of pagan charity that you’ve only thus far vaguely hinted at.

  • Anthony Paul Smith

    My issue is with the notion that Christianity in its earliest forms constituted some kind of revolution against paganism. Paganism is then subtly conflated with Roman culture in general, whereas Christianity is still proposed, in a largely apologetic way, as the revolutionary option. I’m not sure that paganism lacks this sense of charity, or rather I’m not sure that this sense of charity is even actually present in the world as specifically Christian in origin, but it does seem that if earliest Christianity represented some kind of revolution, we have been living the thermidorian reaction for thousands of years. I mean that last quote is just absurdly idiotic in its essentialism. I just wonder how much of Hart’s thesis on charity is dependent on empirical history and how much is a kind of transcendental argument about the eternal nature of things as apologetics for that reaction. Of course I’m not siding with the New Atheists in this debate either, but I don’t have much taste for conservative polemics.

  • Ben Kautzer

    Out of curiosity what is this “pure” paganism that you keep referring to? Granted, “Roman culture” and paganism are not strictly speaking synonymous. Nonetheless, what is “Roman culture” absent its religious/cultic ideology and practice? Did such a thing ever really exist? Maybe I missed something but I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “Paganism is then subtly conflated with Roman culture in general.” What you are concretely attempting to defend here?

    You seem to suggest that there is some profoundly benevolent core to paganism. Can you be more specific about what kind of charity you have in mind in this respect? Your claim that “I’m not sure that paganism lacks this sense of charity” doesn’t seem to really engage with Hart’s analysis of pagan cultic violence that I listed above. Again, even if you were able to provide instances of such benevolent practices within paganism, the questions still remains: what sense of primacy was given to such acts of mercy? what motivated these practices? what impact did they have on the other darker and more violent aspects of pagan cultic life? how did that shape the treatment of the chronically infirmed (such as the lepers) or the more readily disposable (like prisoners of war or unwanted children)? how did this charity seep into the collective consciousness of the culture? Paganism has a far older history than Christianity from which to draw upon. Yet I don’t see anything close to the achievements of the early and medieval church on any of these points.

    No offense, but to challenge whether “this sense of charity is even actually present in the world as specifically Christian in origin” is frankly ludicrous. All the historical examples that Hart lists above are specifically Christian in origin. I can list plenty more. I’m not sure what your statement even means. When these practices are done out of explicit fidelity to the command of Jesus to his disciples or when a banquet to feed the poor is part of a Eucharistic liturgy, how could that not be considered specifically Christian? Perhaps “TO WHAT EXTENT the charity manifested in the world of the early church was uniquely of Christian origin” might be a more reasonable question. But even there, to suggest otherwise makes very little historical sense absent a lot of hard data and a compelling alternative narrative to make sense of it. Your suggestion leaves unanswered the obvious resulting question: What then explains the church’s overwhelming turn to charity if not something relating to its origins — that is the life and teachings of Jesus, the ministry of the apostles, the liturgical and theological reflections of the bishops, the testimony of the martyrs, and so forth? What else invoked these eventual shifts in Roman culture? For instance, Julian the Apostate’s entire (pagan) social welfare program was modeled almost completely on the work of Christian churches. In your view, how are we to make sense of all this?

    At the end of the day, I think Hart is right to suggest that Christianity represented a revolutionary option. The historical evidence suggests that the opponents of Christianity certainly thought this was the case as well, and frantically (and violently) attempted to suppress it.

    You’re right that Hart’s last quote is over the top in its absolutist language (I said so myself above). That being said, I don’t think it’s “absurdly idiotic” in light of his book as a whole. What sets “Atheist Delusions” apart from, say, “The God Delusion” is precisely Hart’s attention to historical detail and reasoned argumentation. If anything, it seems that you’re the only one here not identifying a single empirical or historical example to substantiate your opinions. I’m not trying to be aggressive here, so please don’t misunderstand me. I’m just saying that such a performative contradiction makes it really difficult to understand what your arguing for in the first place.

  • Anthony Paul Smith

    Apologies for not treating the comment box like an academic paper. I’m not concretely defending anything and certainly not the Roman Empire in its Holy Pagan form nor its Holy Christian form. As for historically informed, well, frankly I find discussing “paganism” to be a historical mistake. Paganism as such is a lot like Hinduism in terms of its largely constructed unitary identity. If the actions of the Roman hierarchy constitutes paganism sure, but it seems that “paganism” as such is a kind of catch all. My comments about not knowing if charity is specifically Christian come from my doubts about the honesty of scholarship coming from Christians who have an apologetic end. Because, even if a hospital’s impetus for forming somehow is related to an idea in Christianity, the political actions of Christianity have been anything but revolutionary in the long term even with regard to medical care (cf. Foucault). I distrust the use of the word pagan because it seems a rhetorical device against all non-monotheistic religions that had a absolutely terrible effect on Christian European’s colonization of African religion and philosophy. I was unclear above, but my point was not to celebrate paganism as such, but to question the idea that paganism is one thing anymore than Christianity is. My question really was simply how much of Hart’s argument is to be taken as history and how much is apologetics. The reason I asked was it seems intellectual dishonest to conflate the religious experience of Roman paganism with the horrors of Roman imperialism and assign some kind of lasting revolutionary core to Christianity despite its sorted history after its establishment. I don’t dispute that Christianity was a revolutionary movement in the context of Imperial Rome; I dispute that it continues to be.

    I will note in closing that it seems that in other religions found in the Middle East, like Judaism and Zoroastrianism, there was a high emphasis on charity. As to their relative lack of efficacy compared to early and medieval Christianity, one can point to a plethora of material reasons for the success of Christian European medicine against Roman (one would be the influence of Islamic learning, for instance). Of course Christianity as the dominant way of thinking about ethics in its environment will be important, but it seems a variant of historical idealism to consider that the change in a larger culture was due to the superiority and particular resilience of Christianity against all other religious and ethical movements. This however is a passing interest and I make no claim to any kind of expertise on the study of comparative religious ideas of charity.

  • Ben Kautzer

    Greetings again, Anthony. Thanks for the continuing conversation!

    As a prefatory note, I wasn’t asking for an academic paper, just some specifics clarifying what it is you were getting at. If comment boxes are only reserved for blanket generalities that ignore the texts in question and/or the historical particularities they happen to refer to, then are we not reduced to a rather boring exchange of ideological presuppositions? Regardless, your clarifications here have been quite helpful in orientating the conversation appropriately.

    I concede your point about the risks involved in speaking of “paganism” as a loose generalization deployed as a derogatory or polemical rhetorical flare. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, similar dangers also can arise in our use of terms like “Christianity,” “the Church,” “Modernity,” and so forth. From what I can tell, Hart does not appear to be using “paganism” as some generic, pseudo-anthropological category, but rather as shorthand for the religious/cultic beliefs and practices of the Western (and Eastern) Greco-Roman antiquity in which Christianity first came into being and eventually flourished. It would be a bit silly to peg this as purely a sly move of Christian apologetic persuasion in that such language is pretty much the standard among the historians (regardless their confessional allegiance). Again, what differentiates Hart from the New Atheists here is that he (on the whole) does a pretty good job qualifying his terms; that is, Hart tends to specify which “paganism” he is referring to (although at those points when he doesn’t I’d happy apply your criticisms).

    That being said, because you claim to “not concretely defending anything” here, I guess I kind of struggle with your comments thus far in that I still don’t know what you’re aiming at. If we’re not allowed to use the term “paganism” to refer to the religious and/or cultic apparatus of Roman antiquity, what would be more appropriate language to describe the phenomenon in question?

    As per your claim that “My comments about not knowing if charity is specifically Christian come from my doubts about the honesty of scholarship coming from Christians who have an apologetic end,” I have a few responses.

    First of all, it is hardly just Christian apologetics that make such claims. Hart’s own bibliography on these issues points either to primary sources or to well-respected historians. It is not my understanding that the specifically Christian shape of charity during this time period is even under debate within serious historical scholarship.

    Secondly, do you not have your own apologetic ends as well in making posts on a blog like this? I mean, you say so yourself that you don’t see Christianity as having any revolutionary relevance for the world today. Could that not equally be impacting your reading of history? My point being why should one not have equal doubts about your claims here purely on the grounds of “apologetics”?

    Third, if you will be patient enough for another full quote at length, Hart actually preemptions your objection at the very beginning of his book where he writes on the opening page:

    “This book is in no sense an impartial work of history. Perfect detachment is impossible for even the soberest of historians, since the writing of history necessarily demands some sort of narrative of causes and effects, and is thus necessarily an act of interpretation, which by its nature can never be wholly free of prejudice. But I am not really a historian, in any event, and I do not even aspire to detachment. In what follows, my prejudices are transparent and unreserved, and my argument is in some respects willfully extreme (or so it might seem). [. . .] It may be impossible to provide perfectly irrefutable evidence for one’s conclusions, but it is certainly possible to amass evidence sufficient to confirm them beyond plausible doubt, just as it is possible to discern when a particular line of interpretation has exceeded or contradicted the evidence altogether and become little better than a vehicle for the writer’s own predilections, interests, or allegiances. I can, moreover, vouch for the honesty of my argument: I have not consciously distorted any aspect of the history I discuss or striven to conceal any of its more disheartening elements. Such honesty costs me little, as it happens. Since the case I wish to make is NOT that the Christian gospel can magically transform whole societies in an instant, or summon the charity it enjoins out of the depths of every soul, or entirely extirpate cruelty and violence from human nature, or miraculously lift men and women out of their historical contexts, I feel no need to evade or excuse the innumerable failures of many Christians through the ages to live lives of charity or peace. Where I come in defense of historical Christianity, it is only in order to raise objections to certain popular calumnies of the church, or to demur from what I take to be disingenuous or inane arraignments of Christian belief or history, or to call attention to achievements and virtues that writers of a devoutly anti-Christian bent tend to ignore, dissemble, or dismiss” (pp. ix-x).

    Fourth, as this quotation suggests it’s important to remember who he is writing against here. The pop atheists of the last few decades represent anything but “honest scholarship.” Hart is not claiming to write a book of perfectly objective historical analysis, but that doesn’t mean that the arguments and illustrations offered therein are therefore automatically fabricated, exaggerated, or flat out historically inaccurate. To PRESUME so seems to appeal to some sort of scientific positivism that we both know isn’t exactly reliable.

    Fifth, and finally, if you have doubts about the claims, fine. But the claims presented have also been accompanied by verifiable empirical data. Brushing aside that analysis with a shrug doesn’t seem sufficient to me. With the exception of the question of hospitals (which I’ll address in a bit) very little of what you’ve written above has actually clashed with the arguments I’ve presented (my own or Hart’s). But I digress . . .

    A bit later in your response, you maintain that “it seems intellectual dishonest to conflate the religious experience of Roman paganism with the horrors of Roman imperialism and assign some kind of lasting revolutionary core to Christianity despite its sorted history after its establishment” and yet you provide absolutely no empirical basis for this statement. How are the list of atrocities that Hart catalogues above applicable only to “Roman imperialism” and yet somehow completely irrelevant to “Roman paganism”? Of course, you might be correct here, but I don’t see any reason given why that is the case.

    Undoubtedly, Christianity’s history became “sorted” in manifold ways throughout the life of the church. However, for me the key hermeneutical question is were those unhelpful “established” movements embodiments of a fidelity or a corrupted perversion of the faith and of the “revolution” of the Kingdom of Christ?

    On to the question of hospitals. You write, “even if a hospital’s impetus for forming somehow is related to an idea in Christianity, the political actions of Christianity have been anything but revolutionary in the long term even with regard to medical care (cf. Foucault).” Here I would suggest that the story is far more complicated than your leading on (and Hart does deal with this topic throughout the book). Certainly, the development of medical practice as such was, at times, nothing short of vile and grotesque (though perhaps not compared with the medical atrocities of our modern age). Where “the blame” lies is not easily discernable. Equally, the nature of contemporary “post-Christian” medical practice is not without its checkered (“sorted”) existence. That being said, the statement “the political actions of Christianity have been anything but revolutionary in the long term even with regard to medical care” seems to require some interrogation of its own. We seem to agree that Christianity was initially revolutionary, but has (perhaps) ceased to be so. I think we both fully agree that this is the case with medical care today. But WHY is this the case? Has something of the revolutionary character been lost? Is the post-Christian vision brighter, lighter, freer, more robust? The analysis of the seamier sides of contemporary secular science (and scientific ethics) in Hart’s final section, “Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human” seems to call this into question. I don’t have a simple answer other than to say it’s not a simple question.

    However, with regard to your claim that “the success of Christian European medicine against Roman” hinged upon “the influence of Islamic learning,” Hart does offer some interesting analysis on Byzantine and Islamic practices of medicine that heavily qualifies that argument (cf. Timothy S. Miller, “The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire” and Guenter B. Risse, “Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals”).

    Finally, I’ll draw this very long, late night response to a close with a couple of comments about “other religions found in the Middle East.” On the one hand, you mention the high priority Judaism placed on mercy and charity, as if that would somehow scandalize Hart’s position here. I don’t see how that could possibly be the case in that Christianity, as you well know, only makes sense as a movement rooted in Judaism. In fact, Jesus’s own ministry honed in on this particular thread of charity within Jewish theology and radicalized it in his teaching, healing ministry, table fellowship, cross and resurrection; it is perhaps best summed up in the prophecy given to Isaiah (61.1-3) recapitulated in the gospel of Luke (4.16-19):

    The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
    Because the LORD has anointed me
    To bring good news to the afflicted;
    He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    To proclaim liberty to captives
    And freedom to prisoners;
    To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD
    And the day of vengeance of our God;
    To comfort all who mourn,
    To grant those who mourn in Zion,
    Giving them a garland instead of ashes,
    The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting
    So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
    The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.

    In other words, of course there was a massive emphasis on charity in Judaism. But again, the relation between Judaism and Christianity is complex. Adamantly, I am not as well versed in Zoroastrianism so I’ll have to take your word for it (though again without any examples I’m not sure how comparable the analogy actually is to Christianity).

    You may be right that Hart’s work represents a degree of “historical idealism” by arguing for the “superiority and particular resilience of Christianity against all other religious and ethical movements” (assuming, of course, that this is an adequate representation of Hart’s argument).

    Then again, it just might be possible that Christianity matches exactly this description.

  • Anthony Paul Smith

    On the purpose of comments, you’ll notice I don’t write long comments and am not particularly long-winded. I never had unless it was to fisk someone’s argument who I found particularly annoying and idiotic (where the overly long comment becomes a polemical act in itself). I do not find you particularly annoying nor idiotic and so I haven’t done that here. Treating blogs like academic papers seems (to me, obviously everyone has to decide of what use these things are for themselves) a waste of productive energy. Instead I simply ask questions of posts that I find interesting when I see some issue arising. I’ve always used blogs as a way of supplementing the isolation and anemia of my current academic environment. If you want a conversation partner that is going to provide you with a list of references with each comment I can’t do that and if you’d prefer that I not post here just let me know. I wasn’t trying to be anything more than the friendly opposition (I will say that my knowledge of Zoroastrianism comes from one weekend when I was 20 reading about the historical Zarathustra in an attempt to understand Nietzsche’s, so I could be wrong, but I remember there being some quotations from the Zoroastrian scriptures about the centrality of charity).

    Again you seem to be conflating my skepticism with some kind of positive project against Christianity. I’m not against Christianity as such, though I find the kind of white-washing and polemical rhetoric of Hart largely unhelpful and pretty dangerous (more on that in a bit), I was asking a question about the relationship between “verifiable empirical date” (and this after you scold me for treading to close to scientific positivism…) and ideological commitments. A thought-experiment is all I was proposing and not a challenge as such. This morphed, likely due to my purpose being unclear to you, into being forced to provide some kind of defense of paganism I never set out to give. The position of the New Atheists and the position of the New Christiandom types are both, to my mind, unhelpful for the present age. I’m for more reform of Christianity, not less, and for a response to the New Atheists that takes a more questioning tone and considers what it is that is wrong with Christianity (and I won’t limit this to Christianity as such, I would like to see it in Islam, which has it’s own dialectic of revolution and empire, and the other major world religions that have shaped, in smaller ways, modernity). In this way I find the responses coming from feminist theologians more interesting in form, if not always in content. I’d also love to see a shift away from these Christiandom thinkers to more protestant, though by no means weak, thinkers like J. Carter.

    As for the argument about historical research, I’m not going to pretend to be versed in the history of hospitals past what I’ve read in a class on Foucault and another on AIDS as an undergrad. My doubts about arguments that couch themselves in historical terms comes from the same place my doubts about empirical research in general take when found in theological and philosophical works. One can always find some article that claims to give you the authority of empirical data, but as a philosopher I lack the same skills as the historian, and have to wonder, when given contradictory “empirical data” in the course of a debate who to believe. This was brought home to me at the recent conference on money where there were two separate graphs by two speakers claiming different things. Of course I’m not comfortable with this as a kind of relativism where we just go forward from our principles, which you rightly point out, but I’m also not satisfied when we simply, like Hart, proudly claim ‘Yep, I’m biased.’ For instance, one often runs across claims from Christiandom theologians about the superiority of Christian science against Islamic science, which runs counter to the generally accepted histories, and I’m never sure if I should trust people who have an ax to grind against Islam on Islam. This has bared itself out in arguments in France concerning the transmission of Aristotle, and I couldn’t help but feel as I read about that controversy that there were pernicious political motivations at work. The same kind of motivations that allow us to suggest ambiguity when our own ideological presuppositions are threatened but posit perfect clarity of vision in our polemics against others. I’m not saying something specifically against Hart or Christiandom theologians in general, I’m making a comment, and one I feel challenged by myself, on all projects that attempt to write an intellectual history in order to advance some other claims.

    Anyhow, I just wanted to respond to some of your remarks as it seemed my purpose hadn’t been clearly explained. Again, I wasn’t trying to argue about who history is right, I was asking a more meta-question that I don’t pretend to have an answer to. It seems, however, that it hasn’t been helpful or productive of thought and I’ll gladly leave you to it if that is what you’d prefer.

  • Ben Kautzer

    Thanks, Anthony for this very thought provoking reflection. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to flesh out your arguments beyond your usual comment box preferences. I do apologize for attempting to squeeze out a positive project where you only intended to offer a critical engagement. My aim was not to put words into your mouth or attempt to back you into a position you have no allegiance to. And please understand that I enjoy our banter. I suppose my own bent towards long-windedness and my insatiable procrastination causes me to blog in a style not very fitting to the format (or helpful for my own time management!). However, hearing this more robust account of your perspective has gone a long way in a clearing mutual space of understanding.

    If I may, I think that part of the reason I (advertently or inadvertently) tend to push for more positive conceptions in our conversations is that I am genuinely interested in discerning your take on some of these questions. For instance, when you write: “I don’t dispute that Christianity was a revolutionary movement in the context of Imperial Rome; I dispute that it continues to be,” that raises a fascinating, exploratory space for some really fruitful discussion. A part of me is inclined to agree; Christianity in many, many, many of its contemporary manifestations seems to lack any of the means of being the sort of revolutionary movement capable of thoroughly challenging and transforming systems of oppression, violence, and injustice. Part of me wonders why. Part of me wonders what bits are worth sustaining and which ones are better left behind. A big part of me wonders what should we then be striving towards. Another part of me wonders where to put such things as covenantal promise, faith in the faithfulness of Christ, hope in the eschatological in-breaking of the Kingdom, the universal Lordship of Jesus within our attempts to “do Christianity better” and put the world to rights. All questions bigger than the answers at my disposal. For the time being, I’m wanting to interrogate charity as a powerful, yet equally dangerous nucleus of the revolutionary nature of the faith that ought to be drawn back to the center as we move this conversation forward. As I look back, it seems like there was something to these practices and the theological/philosophical paradigms that made them intelligible that is worth recovering, recapitulating, and performing anew.

    I fully agree that a right response to the challenges presented to Christianity (be they from the New Atheists, Speculative Realists, or whoever) must carry a more “questioning tone” than Hart allows. Of course, there is a time for telling folks like Dawkins to sit down and stop all the nonsensical drivel (and in that respect Hart is useful); but as a means of constructively advancing the conversation, I wouldn’t start with a book like “Atheist Delusions.”

    As you say, Hart’s aggressive rhetoric is likely “unhelpful and pretty dangerous,” as a means of communicating the ideas he’s elucidating. In fact, it’s rather contrary to his own reflections (where is the space for charitable speech, for instance?). While I’m not interested so much in the form, the content of the arguments are provocative and compelling throughout. Specifically, if he’s right about this type of charity as a critical piece of the puzzle, then perhaps an exploration of its cooption, perversion, exploitation might help explain why Christianity has become somewhat impotent in our current age. I guess we’ll have to see where such questions take us.

    (Sorry for being ridiculously long-winded yet again! Honestly, I think I need to go outside more).

  • Alex

    Though I’m sure that Christianity brought for the good Charity to the top of the list of the virtues, I’m fairly sure ‘paganism’ is an unhelpful construct for anything other than polemic and is likely unhelpful for detailed history, which is I’m sure not what either Hart or Dawkins are attempting. For example, where do the hippocratics fit into this scheme given their emphasis on the sick and healing, which allowed them easily to transition to Christianity, and thus shows for them it was not a huge turn around. The situation was likely similar among other cults.

    The Zoroastian prayer for charity Anthony was looking for is the Ahuna Vairya, which is one of their most important prayers which goes something like “the will of the Lord is the law of righteousness/the gifts of Vohu-mano (Good Mind) to the deeds done in this world for Mazda/he who relieves the poor makes Ahura king” See also the Brightness of The Day chapter of the Qur’an – ‘Therefore the orphan, oppress not./And him who asks, chide not’.

  • Alex

    hypocratics, obviously. Idiot.

  • Ben Kautzer

    So the Hippocratics practiced medicine and were therefore basically Christians and everyone else was probably that way too?

    Sorry, but what?

  • Alex

    No no, not at all. Sorry Opera kept crashing and I had to type that three or four times. What I mean is that not all ‘paganism’ would have been surprised by the changes Christianity brought. Some forms of paganism, certain cults, were closer to it, and would have therefore found the transition far easier, Hypocratics being one example moving from Asclepius to Christ. Some strands of stoicism might also, as St Ambrose. Indeed it was part of Christian apologetics to bring these similarities to light. Not too controversal a thesis I hope, all I am trying to stress is that paganism isn’t a monolith, which I’m sure a fan of neoplatonism like Hart would agree with.

  • Ben Kautzer

    Hey Alex, thanks for the clarifications.

    Absolutely, “paganism” wasn’t monolithic. The diversity of pagan philosophers that converted and eventually joined the ranks of church bishops (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, etc.) witnesses to the fact that early Christian thought was in continuous, mutually informing debate with the manifold ethical/religious traditions around at the time. But I’m still not sure I understand exactly what you mean when you say the transition from such ways of life was “far easier.”

  • Ben Kautzer

    I suppose basic similarities in thought and practice could have encouraged quicker conversion, but equally the persistently confessed reasons why Christians acted as they did scandalized and radically critiqued the entire religious matrix and social imaginary through which these various cults/philosophical schools understood the nature of things. While Christians freely absorbed and reworked “pagan” philosophy in light of the gospel there was more at stake in such a “transition” (as all these Christian bishops went to such lengths to articulate) than simply shifting allegiances from one god to another within the wider pantheonic culture of Roman antiquity.

    All that to say, on the whole I agree with what you’re comment; I guess I just find myself wanting to qualify your earlier statement that “for them it was not a huge turn around.”

  • Alex

    That’s what I meant, yo.

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